USFS announces large air tanker strategy

P2V over the Whoopup fire

The U.S. Forest Service issued a news release today saying they were announcing a strategy for replacing aging large air tankers. We have been waiting for a replacement strategy since 2002 when two air tankers independently fell apart in midair killing five crew persons. The repercussions from that, and weeding out some of the most unsuitable old air tankers, resulted in the size of the air tanker fleet decreasing from 44 to the 11 we have today.

The “strategy” announced on a Friday afternoon where news releases go to die, is almost identical to the details that appeared in the Request for Proposals that the USFS issued in November of 2011. As we reported then, the agency may add 7 to 35 25 turbine-powered air tankers to their contracted air tanker fleet. That RFP, which was amended several times, said these “next generation” aircraft must be powered by turbine engines and have a “target” capacity of 3,000 to 5,000 gallons, with 2,400 gallons being the minimum acceptable, and they must be able to cruise at 300 knots (345 mph) at 12,000 feet. Today’s news release differs from those specifications only in that it states the capacity must be “a minimum of 1,800 gallons of retardant with more than 3,000 gallons preferred”. Type 2 air tankers have a 1,800 to 3,000 gallon capacity while a Type 1 air tanker can carry at least 3,000 gallons. Very large air tankers (VLAT) such as Evergreen’s 747 can hold up to 20,000 gallons.

The news release issued today does add one interesting tidbit (emphasis added):

Airtankers provided under contract by private industry will continue to be essential in effective wildland firefighting. Long term, the Agencies will continue to explore the costs and benefits of all types of aircraft and ownership models.

This leaves the door open to adding government owned contractor operated (GOCO) air tankers, or even government owned government operated (GOGO) air tankers to the current situation, which is contractor owned contractor operated (COCO). However, the USFS is extremely, incredibly slow and indecisive, and they are very, very resistant to adopt any new wildfire aviation technologies or aviation platforms. So for them to make any major change, especially to GOCO or GOGO, is inconceivable, in spite of the all-options-are-on-the-table sentiment expressed in the news release..

The excerpt said they will continue to explore the costs and benefits of all types of aircraft. The release also includes this:

The fleet of aircraft that are used for wildland fire suppression also includes water scoopers, single engine airtankers, very large airtankers and helicopters.

This is intended to give the casual reader the impression that the USFS actively encourages and uses all of those types of aircraft, which is not the case. It is very obvious that certain individuals in the USFS have a strong bias against water scoopers and VLATs.

Later we will examine some of the information that is in the $840,092 Rand report. The USFS commissioned Rand to make recommendations about the future of the air tanker program, but refuses to release the pricey report even under a Freedom of Information Act request.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

4 thoughts on “USFS announces large air tanker strategy”


    This is what and who is in charge of a multimillion dollar “FAM” program??

    This really speaks of an aviation overhaul. Congress reaallly needs to strip USFS of the aviation program and PROVE it can manage the lands.

    AGAIN 40-60 yrs of trying to get it right is proven through all of these PR blurbs

    Standby for an exciting 2012 fire season!

  2. 7-35 tankers? Of what SEAT’s? They aren’t even in that load gap. The USFS having any type of Initial Attack tankers with the current situation is pretty much impossible and unrealistic. Since most of the other large type 1 tanker companies have since gone under since they (USFS) killed them off after 2003 and recently Aero Union and their 8 P-3’s. So that means that those supposed other type 1 tankers will have to be contracted from Canada more than likely. Which I seriously doubt there are close to 7 of them that they would spare to contract to the US. I really don’t understand where that hugely inflated number of 35 came from. A lot of good that does when there’s nothing at this very moment they can do to guarantee a timely and effective response to a major wildfire outbreak, let alone a multi-state outbreak.

  3. Usually, a “new strategy” is released just before Congressional hearings, or just before an OIG or GAO report is issued and says, “Improvements Made, but a Strategy Is Needed to Address Remaining Challenges”.

    Seems accountability doesn’t matter anymore. Just say, ‘We have a new strategy’.

    It is getting old seeing the USFS hiring Rand Corp., Dialogos, and others to complete “studies” that are simply… COMMON SENSE.

    How about “we” do something different and actually listen to the FIRE MANAGERS and FIREFIGHTERS who are already “on the payroll” as experts?


  4. Strategy, what strategy? who listens or even remotely cares about these “rumors”. What is it 7 or 35? 1800 gallons, 2400 gallons or 3000 gallons? When it comes to making a dispatch decision in a timely manner and sending the real value of fixed wing tankers (prompt initial attack) forget it. The few tankers that are around are either on a day off resting, never where assigned to an air base, or gone (UTF) again. Private sector will provide reliable effect air tankers it is the other side that is broken. Does the Rand report address zones of influence, air base placement, probablity of escape with or without fixed wing air tankers, resource values, being a good neighbor to private land owners so the Feds won’t burn up the poor old taxpayers property when their fires escape, a dispatch systems that doesn’t require a conference of several people to make a timely decision with coverage during noon to one.
    I suggest the Feds give-up the air tanker issue and just go with hot shots and 200 RU 44 helicopters with 50 gallon buckets, choked down to 35 gallons. Take one stump hole at a time. Sounds like what happened during fire season 2011.


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